- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — With gay marriage a no-go this year, Maryland senators voted yesterday to allow unmarried couples more rights to make medical decisions for each other.

The Senate voted 30-17 to allow domestic partners, who could be gay or heterosexual, to make medical or funeral decisions for each other if they meet certain criteria to show they are a committed couple.

Unwed couples would have to show “mutual interdependence” such as joint checking accounts or common property ownership before qualifying for the decision-making powers.

Unwed couples complain that they are sometimes denied life-or-death decision rights or medical privileges such as riding in an ambulance or visiting a partner on life support.

The measure now heads to the House. It could become the most substantive gay rights matter that lawmakers take up this year. This is the first general session since Maryland’s highest court said last year that the legislature is free to remove gender definitions in state marriage law, but top lawmakers have said gay unions won’t be considered this term.

The bill sparked days of debate from senators who questioned how couples would designate each other their domestic partners. Some also questioned whether the bill would open the door to gay marriage.

“In society today, we promote marriage. Marriage between one man and one woman,” said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, Frederick Republican, who opposed the measure. “You’re giving spousal rights to unmarried people.”

The only Republican to support the bill, Sen. Allan H. Kittleman of Howard and Carroll counties, said he wanted to allow couples who can’t marry for legal reasons the medical rights spouses have. He cited elderly couples and a widow who cannot marry her longtime partner because she would lose benefits.

“I rise in support of this bill, and it’s not an easy thing for me to do,” said Mr. Kittleman, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican. Later, he added, “This isn’t simply about homosexuality.”

After a short debate, the Senate approved the measure. Four Democrats voted against it. The measure now heads to the House.

The legislature also is considering measures to exempt domestic partners from paying certain transfer taxes when one person dies and a measure to add domestic partners to the list of people exempted from paying inheritance taxes.

•••

The House gave preliminary approval to a measure that would make it a hate crime to display nooses as a symbol of racial hate.

Maryland hate-crime law already covers such actions as placing a burning cross on a yard.

Supporters say nooses have replaced white hoods and burning crosses as symbols of racial hate. Opponents fear the bill could be too broad and cover protected speech.

•••

Speed cameras at highway work zones were approved yesterday the state Senate.

The Senate voted 26-21 to allow speed cameras at work zones in the state. The bill also allows local jurisdictions to approve their use in neighborhoods and near schools. Supporters say the cameras are needed because work-zone speed limits are hard to police by traditional radar detection.

Senators voted for the bill without debate. Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland that uses automated speed-monitoring systems.

•••

A law to require low-phosphorus dishwashing detergent in Maryland sparked a lively debate among state senators trying to decide whether to delay its implementation.

Current law calls for manufacturers to slash phosphorus content in dishwashing detergent by December 2009 to reduce pollutants washing into the Chesapeake Bay.

The bill before the Senate would delay that deadline by six months at the request of detergent maker Procter & Gamble Co. Opponents argue that the delay will leave the Chesapeake vulnerable longer and that Procter & Gamble should be able to meet the deadline.

Senators rejected an amendment to require Procter & Gamble to pay to remove nitrogen in the Bay during the delay. Debate was scheduled to resume today. A similar bill is pending in the House.

•••

The Senate delayed a decision on whether to allow brutal ultimate fighting contests in Maryland.

Lawmakers decided yesterday to put off for one day a decision on whether to regulate fights known as mixed martial arts. Such contests, sometimes called ultimate fighting, currently are illegal.

Supporters say the contests should be allowed but need oversight by the state agency that also oversees boxing, but some senators questioned whether Maryland should allow violent fights, sometimes fought in cages.

The measure was rescheduled for further debate today. A similar bill is pending in the House.

••••

New state buildings will need to use green building techniques under a bill moving forward in the Maryland Senate.

The Senate voted without objection yesterday to advance a bill that would require the state to make state-funded buildings energy-efficient. The bill also requires school districts to use green building techniques for new schools after next year, although they could get waivers and the state would pick up half the tab.

The bill is among those backed by Gov. Martin O”Malley, a Democrat. Opponents say the bill will simply inflate the cost of construction as the state faces tight budgets. Supporters say the bill would save money in the long run because power bills in public buildings would be reduced.

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